John Wilson Foster is an essayist, literary critic, cultural historian and playwright. From 1974 until 2002 he was Professor of English at the University of British Columbia of which he is now professor emeritus. In 2001 he was National University of Ireland Professor at NUI, Maynooth. After early retirement he was a Leverhulme visiting professor to the U.K., visiting professor at the University of Toronto, and visiting fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons, is a story of the rapid and brutal extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, once so abundant that they ‘blotted out the sky’, until the last bird died on 1st September 1914. It is also an evocative story of wild America.
1. What first sparked your intrigue about the passenger pigeon?
After publishing several books and numerous articles of literary criticism, I was casting around for a subject for biography; I wanted my writing to be less reliant on the work of others. But one day in Vancouver I was leafing through Percy Taverner’s Birds of Canada (1934). Until then I had not connected my years as a birdwatcher with writing. But when I read Taverner’s succinct but movingly written paragraph on the profile and fate of the passenger pigeon I knew I had found my subject — not a human being but an extraordinary bird, the life and death of which seemed to me even then to have potentially all the richness of the life of a fascinating person or people.
2. Which event in American history accelerated the extinction of passenger pigeons?
An aspect of the richness of the life and death of Ectopistes migratorius was the way in which elements of the European development of North America in the 19th century coincided and contributed to the bird’s demise. The growth of human settlements and reduction of the unmolested wildernesses of forest, the cutting down of the trees where this species nested; the coming of the railroad that enabled the transport of more birds to the market, and then telegraphy which quickened communication of information about where the huge nestings were, helping those who killed the birds for financial gain; and the growth of the killing as a highly organised commercial enterprise that eventually became a significant industry — these developments accelerated extinction. And it has to be said that, ironically, its own vast numbers contributed to the pigeon’s extinction; they were an invitation, alas, to slaughter. Yet some mystery about the bird’s final disappearance remains. A nesting 40 acres in extent was begun in Wisconsin in 1885 which was abandoned when the pigeoners arrived, yet only 15 years later the bird had simply vanished from the wild. The end was so sudden that some were sure some catastrophe had occurred, an extreme weather event, perhaps, that drowned or otherwise destroyed the last remaining flock; some thought the besieged birds had abandoned North America and retreated to South America where unlikely sightings were reported from the Andes. Our information about the bird ended, as it had begun in the early decades of European presence in North America, in hearsay and folklore.
3. What is the significance of using “Pilgrims” in the title?
John James Audubon called passenger pigeons “pilgrims of the air”. Pilgrims take journeys to sacred places; passenger pigeons, as their name implies (in its older meaning, a passenger was a wayfarer), spent their lives journeying together for hundreds of miles in search of food throughout eastern North America. As fans of John Wayne movies will know, “pilgrims”, the original English refugee voyagers to the continent, can refer colloquially to American pioneers on their way west. I thought Audubon’s word captured all of these meanings but also the suggestion that this remarkable bird was tainted with something mysterious and even other worldly: fleeting but unforgotten; its afterlife has also been remarkable.
4. How long have you been an amateur ornithologist?
The answer is for four-fifths of my life and I discover now to my amazement that I am an elderly man, for I remember vividly my first sightings that were recorded in my first notebook when I was thirteen and where exactly I made them; and I remember even the thrill of first identifications using the little pocket-book of immortal memory, The Observer’s Book of British Birds. I began birdwatching in Belfast before venturing farther afield to marshes, woods, ponds and estuaries in Northern Ireland, then to Ireland and Britain, and then to the United States when I went to Oregon as a grad student in my early twenties. In my late teens I wanted to become a warden of a British bird observatory and took zoology as a first-year student in Belfast with that in mind, but I had to admit to myself later that I was simply not a good enough field naturalist for the job, and swerved instead into literature and philosophy. I don’t regret this but still have an envy of the professional ornithologist.
5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I would like to mention a book I wrote two years ago, since it isn’t a million miles from Pilgrims of the Air. That is The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (2020). It’s a biography of the Hollywood couple who founded and funded the Tyler Award for Environmental Achievement in 1973 and which is still the most prestigious and lucrative award of its kind. But it is also a biography of the prize itself and in being so incorporates a history of ecology and environmentalism, in the United States and elsewhere. I have been asked to edit a book about Sean O’Casey the famous playwright, and am engaged on that pleasant task, and hope also to return to writing down my memories of growing up in Belfast, including, of course, my early passion for birds.
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